Speaking in his apartment in a suburb of Diyarbakir, in southeastern Turkey, Solin and his colleague Koya are so scared of being identified that they will not allow even an obscured photograph of themselves to be published. Nor do they want their real names to be known. “People here see homosexuality as a poison - a disease,” says Solin, the ash of his cigarette making a quick, quiet hiss as he taps it into a jar of water.
For all their fear, however, the pair embarked on a radical experiment, launching the first-ever magazine for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transsexual (LGBT) Kurds this July. Called ‘Hevjin’, meaning ‘intercommunity’ in Kurdish, the first issue of the free publication is available online and in a few bookshops and cafés in Diyarbakir, a city with a large Kurdish population.
It took three years of patient work before Koya and Solin, both gay Kurds themselves, were ready to bring out the first issue. “There are 15 million Kurds in Turkey, and one in 10 people is gay, but where are the Kurdish gay people?” asked Solin. “That is the question that led to this. We wanted to find out how people express their sexuality in this culture.”
In the Kurdish east and the mass of rural Anatolia, Islamic values and extended family networks make it impossible to live an openly gay lifestyle. “No one is openly homosexual,” says Koya. “There are a few, maybe a couple in our group, who are accepted within their families on the condition of not being open in the community.”
Gays have good reason to be scared here. In July 2008, a 26-year-old Kurdish man, Ahmet Yildiz, became the victim of what many believe to be Turkey’s first gay honor killing to be publicly exposed. Yildiz, who was openly homosexual and had even represented Turkey at an international gay gathering in San Francisco the previous year, had left his conservative Kurdish family in the southeast in order to live more openly in the West. He was shot dead as he left a café in the Uskudar district of Istanbul. His own father Yahya, who disappeared after his death and has still not been found, is currently being tried in absentia for his murder.
Going to great lengths to hide his sexual orientation, Solin said he got engaged to a lesbian woman from abroad in order to allay the suspicions of his own family. “You are always anxious, and I wish my family did not live in this area because I could be more open,” he said.
Three years ago, Solin, Koya and others began to organize secret meetings in each other’s homes to lay the foundations of a Kurdish LGBT activist movement. “There was no individual or political awareness of this issue at all. There was no healthy understanding of what it is to be homosexual,” says Koya. A large percentage of the people they gathered were sex workers.
Even in more liberal areas of western of Turkey, acceptance of homosexuality is growing fitfully. Though homosexuality has never been technically illegal in Turkey, vaguely worded ‘public morality’ laws have often provided a legal means for banning LGBT marches. In March this year, the Families and Children Minister for Turkey’s Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party government, Selma Aliye Kavaf, angered gay rights groups when she described homosexuality as a “curable disease.”
Recent polling data indicates that a majority of Turks are approving of restrictions on gay rights. But Nevin Oztop, editor-in-chief of Turkey’s only other LGBT magazine, Kaos GL, asserted that the country is undergoing a rapid transformation. “The western world went through this movement 40 years ago, but we’ve started only in the last 10, even five years,” Oztop said. “In Turkey it’s happening very fast, which is why you have both progress, and violence.”
The Kaos GL magazine, which started 20 years ago, has for the past five years run a regular section called “My Lovely Family,” in which openly gay Turks interview their own parents. “It’s amazing today to see a macho Turkish father accepting his own gay son, and I think the same thing could eventually happen in Diyarbakir,” said Oztop.
But when Solin’s and Koya’s group first announced itself on Turkey’s gay activism scene, its Kurdish orientation became a source of difficulty. “Many organizations in the West of Turkey resisted us at first because we identified ourselves as Kurds,” said Koya. “Even within this community we’re a minority.”
Many Turks holding liberal personal views these days can be staunchly conservative in their approach to politics – something that Oztop contends is a legacy of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish state, who blended liberal and secular social ideas with a decidedly authoritarian and nationalist approach to statecraft. “In the gay movement in this country, there are ‘Kemalist’ people who are not tolerant of minority ethnic identities,” said Oztop. “They say the only politics we can do is for the rights of gay people - but they don’t see the country as a whole.”
“I don’t want to create a hierarchy in discrimination, but I would say that they [the Kurdish LGBT activists] are doubly discriminated against,” Oztop added.
For their part, Koya and Solin affirmed that they feel locked in a twin struggle, one ethnic, the other sexual. Upsetting gay Turks and straight Kurds won’t stop them, they added.
They expressed hope that their periodical, Hevjin, would soon surpass 2,000 readers. Over the longer term, they seek to bring about the kind of change that will allow homosexuals to rally openly in Diyarbakir some day in the not too distant future. “In the past it was very popular for Kurds to say that there were no Kurdish homosexuals. We’ve already got to a point where it’s no longer possible for people to say this.”
Alexander Christie-Miller is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul, where he writes for the Times.